Archive for Monday, April 25, 2011

Slavery defined America’s Civil War

April 25, 2011


In the penultimate paragraph of perhaps the second-greatest speech ever delivered on American soil, Abraham Lincoln set forth the reason the nation was engaged in a great Civil War.

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”

That’s pretty clear: The Civil War was fought because of slavery. So if that were so evident at noon on March 4, 1865, why has there been such controversy for a century and a half over the real cause of the Civil War?

That is a far more difficult question. For reasons economic, social, political and historical, both sides in the Civil War have portrayed the struggle as one over states’ rights, or the size of government or the economic destiny of the country. Slavery was the cause that dared not speak its name.

These other issues were factors, to be sure. But they all grew out of slavery and the great divide that slavery created — first between black and white, then between landowner and laborer, next between North and South, finally between the Union and the Confederacy.

Slavery was central

Strains of these struggles and these divides still mark us. Perhaps they will persist longer than Lincoln’s prescription, when he suggested later in that splendid inauguration paragraph that the fighting would last “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

But we cannot erase those divisions until we face, forthrightly and courageously, the issue that seems so obvious 150 years later and that still seems so difficult to confront. Slavery, and not economic and political independence, was at the center of the war. To those who deny it, consider this question: Would there have been a civil war on American soil if for some reason slavery were not planted on this continent along with tobacco and cotton?

“When you talk to people around the country and ask them the causes of the Civil War, you get the same answers you would have gotten in 1861,” says Andrew E. Masich, president of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center. “Some white people in the South think it was a war to protect their homeland and states’ rights. Some blacks can’t believe the war was about slavery because they don’t believe white people would fight for them. And in the North there are the Unionists, who think the war was fought to preserve the country. There’s still no agreement on the root causes of the Civil War.”

Multiple causes?

In truth, it is possible to search the remarks of Abraham Lincoln and to find in them multiple causes of the Civil War. He began his presidency hoping to restrict the spread of slavery. Then he struggled to preserve the Union. Only later did he decide the fight was about freedom. And by freedom, he meant freedom for all, a broad freedom as envisioned in the Declaration of Independence but — and here is where Lincoln charted new territory — applied to all Americans, white and black.

In the greatest speech ever delivered on American soil, Lincoln spoke of “unfinished work,” and he was not talking only about the task of winning the war. He was speaking, too, of winning that broader definition of freedom. That is what he meant by the phrase “new birth of freedom.” And his opening, speaking of what happened fourscore and seven years earlier — in 1776 — makes it clear that he is taking the Declaration of Independence and grafting it onto the American Constitution, or at least onto the American conscience, with its timeless celebration of the Enlightenment principle that “all men are created equal.”

But even the American Constitution was marked by slavery. The specter haunting the Constitutional Convention, along with the fecklessness of the doomed Articles of Confederation, was slavery. The founding fathers did many things, but they punted on slavery, leaving it to a future generation to settle. That future generation dealt with it by fighting over the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act and then fighting the Civil War.

“Race was a central factor in the nation until the Civil War, through the Civil War and beyond the Civil War,” Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the Illinois Democrat who has proposed a national commission to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, said in an interview. “There never has been a moment that slavery and race was not a factor, and yet both sides were able to subvert the issue of race and not deal with the role of slavery in the war.”

Facing reality

During the war, the primacy of slavery was incontrovertible. In its commentary on the firing on Fort Sumter, the Chicago Tribune said “that barbarous institution” was “the cause of the rebellion which months of effort has ripened into the bloody strife this day commenced.” Frederick Douglass said at the war’s start that the cessation of slavery should be the price of secession from the Union.

We have to face this issue not only to get our past right. We also have to answer it to get our future right. “The past,” Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has written, “is our only reliable guide to the present and to the multiple futures that lie before us, only one of which will actually happen.”

Understand slavery and you understand the Civil War. Understand the Civil War and you understand America. The New Freedom, the New Deal, the great prosperity that followed World War II, the youth and women’s movements of the 1960s, the Reagan Revolution — they’re all important. But not one of them defines us the way the Civil War did, and does. That’s why the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is not only a commemoration. It also is an opportunity.

— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 9 months ago

I read something some years ago that was rather telling, I think. It was was only opinion of course as is most views of history, which entered the English language by a shortening of the words "His Story". Or, maybe that was only an opinion also. It went along the lines of:

Young white men from the northern states certainly did not sign up for a fight to free the slaves. That was not their primary motivation to fight the war, they were instead fighting to prevent the South from breaking up the United States of America. They did not care about Black people all that much, and they certainly did not want Blacks to come up north and live among them, or at least not very many of them.

(And for that matter, they didn't refer to them as Blacks, they used a different term instead.)

Preserving the Union was the reason that was presented to them as the reason why they should sign up, and there was no shortage of recuits. You have to remember that so much history was written by historians that looked at what had just happened through rose colored glasses, because after all, just about all them were writers from the winning side. Of course, there were a few books written about 'The War of Northern Aggression', that's how some southerners even today refer to what we call 'The Civil War'.

And also, I might also ask that if indeed so many young men from 150 years ago were so anxious to fight and die to free Blacks, why did prejudices last so long?

But I'm reminded of yet another war among many, this one was fought something like 100 years later, when both sides in the conflict in Vietnam sincerely believed that they were fighting for freedom from something or other, they just defined "freedom" and "freedom from what" differently. And then again, I am reminded of something else, and this is certainly not original:

"The more things change, the more they remain the same."

MyName 3 years, 9 months ago

You're wrong about the root as "history" originated in late Middle English (also as a verb): via Latin from Greek historia 'finding out, narrative, history', from histōr 'learned, wise man' (check out the OED for more details).

And Southerners rewrote history to try and make their part in it less about defending their "right" to exploit free slave labor and more about "defending their homes" or whatever. It's pretty much the same thing Japan has done about its role in WWII, which their official history glosses over. Some of it was about guilt and some of it was about white historians slanting the narrative to justify the continued white hold of political and economic power.

As for why so many fought in the war, it's the same reasons anyone else volunteers: money (the army paid better than they could make as farmers) and "glory" if you want to call it that. As more people started dying, they eventually turned to the draft.

And racism is not the same thing as approving the ownership of one human by another. One is the belief that a group of people is inferior because they are different, the other is a belief that all people (or at least all people in your country) have a minimum amount of rights. Slavery was degrading, morally corrupting, and a drag on the economy of the south. It was also very profitable for the slave owners.

MyName 3 years, 9 months ago

More bollocks quotes. Two of them were from the English, who outlawed slavery, but still tried to support the South as they wanted the cheap Cotton for their mills. I'm sure I could go through the rest, but none of them are really relevant as they weren't from the people who actually decided the succession.

Try this one from the Mississippi declaration of succession:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth."

Or this from the "Cornerstone speech" by the VP of the Confederacy:

"The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."

And I'm sure there's plenty more like them from the actual politicians that decided to leave the union and go to war. It's stupid to bring up any other side issue when those other causes may have been important, but were not sufficient to cause the war on their own. Only the institution of slavery is both necessary and sufficient to have started the civil war.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 9 months ago

So good to see you back breathlessly defending your ideological, slaveholding brethren of yesteryear, LO.

Liberty275 3 years, 9 months ago

Just like it's good to see you breathlessly defending your ideological gitmo-open-keeping obama of thisteryear. Or your holding-manning-hostage-naked worshpfullness obama.

Do you get obamashivers up your leg when you think about gitmo staying open or private manning being tortured?

somedude20 3 years, 9 months ago

You are one weird cat, dude. You dream of naked dudes at Gitmo with Obama? Wow! Just wow! May the force be with you!!

Liberty275 3 years, 9 months ago

Doesn't everyone dream of naked dudes at gitmo even though the obama promised to close it?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 9 months ago

I think Obama is wrong in his handling of both Gitmo and Manning because of the way he's handling these situations.

You think Obama is wrong because he's Obama.

mom_of_three 3 years, 9 months ago

And taking comments out of newspapers, especially southern ones and those supported by the copperhead movement, is not exactly historical proof that the cause was more than slavery.. Whatever reason you want to claim, it all hearkens back to slavery. All of it.

mom_of_three 3 years, 9 months ago

but see you provide quotes and not the entire article, which can shed some light on what the quote was about. I have been taught by lincoln and civil war scholars and read more than I care to talk about, but they all agree, and so do I, that it all hearkens back to slavery. not matter whether its taxes or whatnot, it all goes back to slavery.

mom_of_three 3 years, 9 months ago

Stop assuming you know anything about me. the majority of your comments were from southern newspapers and I know that some of the comments were from northern copperhead newspapers. I know more than you think I do

Liberty275 3 years, 9 months ago

"Whatever reason you want to claim, it all hearkens back to slavery. All of it. "

Is that exactly historical proof?

mom_of_three 3 years, 9 months ago

i don't think I have time to list all the historical proof necessary, because you and lo wouldn't believe it anyway.
everytime I read some posts, its like I am reading neo confederate literature. uggg... I know the civil war or the war of northern aggression is still alive and well in the south. and they will still argue it has nothing to do with slavery but states rights.
states rights to do what....secede (because lincoln was elected and was believed he was going to abolish slavery), to own property....which were slaves; to tax items made by the south...which were made by slave property.... it all goes back to the slavery argument.

see ya I won't.....I have stated my piece

ignati5 3 years, 9 months ago

There are a number of things wrong with the observations offered above in their emphasis on the purely commercial interests of the South in seceeding from the Union. There is also something drastically and embarrassingly wrong in the historicographical prediction of one "General Pat Cleburne" served up in the final paragraph, as the interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstuction would actually be defined by historians of the "Dunning School" (Northerners all) in subsequent years. Best let this pass for now- not enough time or place to correct all the inaccuracies. One of the sticking points of the Cobden-Chevalier treaty signed between GB and France later in 1860, which established the free trade policy of Great Britain for a generation, was the French presence in Haiti and its exploitation of peasants only a step removed from slavery. The American South also supplied a cautionary note as to what kind of moral comprimises free trade might entail. The free trade argument of the South would break on the reef of abolitionism in England, despite its oppostion by the North in the US. I take EP Thompson and AJP Taylor as my sources here; I am aware that other historians have the contrary opinion that Seward's diplomacy was responsible for the South's denouement. Slavery was the main reason the South left the Union. The other reasons were rationalizations for it. BG

ignati5 3 years, 9 months ago

Not my word only. I cited Thompson and Taylor on the diplomatic side, I know others on the domestic side. I shall not name them here, as their names and works would clutter the site.There are, of course, other scholars who would disagree with me: I know their names and their books. Do you ? As this is not the sort of site to teach people about American History, I regret only that you did not learn it in school. This isn't really your fault, or mine: high school cirriculums even in my more remote day were larded with the apolgetics for the South. There was a hit popular in the early fifies, when I was an impressionable kid, by Phil Harris- "Save Your Confederate Money,Boys, the South's Gonna Rise Again." Prescient. BG

ignati5 3 years, 9 months ago

Poor writing skills? Citing references for what I say, and acknowledging that there may be counter-arguments? Basing opinions on reading different interpretations rather than just sounding off because one happens to exist and has an open mouth? Really! My guess is you also attended a public school, as In did. And that you went no futher. BG\

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 9 months ago

His thesis is every bit as well-supported as yours is, but you choose to attack him over his debating style.

Way to go, Mr. More Scholarly Than Thou.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 9 months ago

" But you don't care about being objective"

We must have at least one thing in common then.

ignati5 3 years, 9 months ago

Sorry if I offended you. My "high school" comment was out of line. I find your posts always relevant to the issue at hand and enjoy sparring with you, but I am thankful it can happen in a forum like this, with little at stake. Having written professionally, I would have hated to have you as an editor! BG

geekin_topekan 3 years, 9 months ago

"My paramount object in this struggle, is to save the Union and it not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it" ++++ The trouble with Northern ideology, concerning slavery, was that they also benefited from slave labor. Much like the illegal immigration issues of today; the same people who felt that slaves had no place here also benefited directly from their labor.

A certain secretary of state doesn't want illegals to go home, he just wants to control them. Like the southern blacks, keep them voiceless, maintain a false God-like image among them, keep them segregated, deny them opportunity to learn to read and write, they are not citizens for ANY practical purpose other than their ability to benefit a privileged class of Americans.

As the last "civilized" nation to get rid of human slavery, you'd think that we'd have learned something about aristocracies by now. Another great irony. To find true freedom,the southern blacks had to escape to Canada, which was under British rule. Blacks had to escape America to find freedom under the British flag!

Bob_Keeshan 3 years, 9 months ago

So do the comments here mean we can close down the "Pro Slavery" state capital in Lecompton?

It is clearly revisionist.

jprich 3 years, 9 months ago

“The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death.” --South Carolinian John Preston to Virginia Secession Convention, February 1861

“[T]his country without slave labor would be completely worthless…. If the negroes are freed the country … is not worth fighting for…. We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to continue to fight to the last.” --Lieutenant William Nugent, 28th Mississippi, July 28, 1863

“[W]e have hitherto contended that Slavery was Cuffee’s normal condition, the very best position he could occupy, the one of all others in which he was happiest … No! freedom for whites, slavery for negroes. God has so ordained it.” --North Carolinian Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston, December 30, 1864

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery…. A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and CIVILIZATION…. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” --Mississippi Secession Convention, 1861

“[A]fter Lincoln’s proclamation any man that would not fight to the last ought to be hung as high as Haman.” --Virginia Captain John Welsh, January 26, 1863

“Although slavery is one of the principles that we started to fight for … if it proves an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of our liberty and nationality, away with it!” --Montgomery (Alabama) Weekly Mail, September 9, 1863

“This terrible war and extreme peril of our country [were] occasioned … more by the institution of negro slavery [than] by any other subject of quarrel.” --Macon (Georgia) Telegraph and Confederate, March 30, 1865

“[T]he mere agitation in the Northern States to effect the emancipation of our slaves largely contributed to our separation from them.” --Charleston Mercury, November 3, 1864

“What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” --Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter, March 7, 1865

“To say that we are ready to emancipate our slaves would be to say, that we are ready to relinquish what we commenced fighting for.” --Galveston (Texas) Tri-Weekly News, March 3, 1865

jprich 3 years, 9 months ago

“Slavery, God’s institution of labor, and the primary political element of our Confederation of Government, state sovereignty … must stand or fall together. To talk of maintaining our independence while we abolish slavery is simply to talk folly.” --Charleston Courier, January 14, 1865

“[I]f slavery is to be abolished then I take no more interest in our fight.” --Confederate Brigadier General Clement H. Stevens, Army of the Tennessee

“[O]ur independence … is chiefly desirable for the preservation of our political institutions, the principal of which is slavery.” --North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance, February 15, 1865

And last but certainly not least… “But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…. Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” --Alexander Stephens, Vice President, Confederate States of America, March 21, 1865

jprich 3 years, 9 months ago

I think you already used that one. And I think I'll stick with those quotes I provided from Southern newspapers and Southerners, especially since many of them actually owned slaves and fought in the war, unlike John Calhoun, who had been dead nearly eleven years by the time rebels opened fire on Fort Sumter in 1861.

jprich 3 years, 9 months ago

I certainly understand the quote isn't from Calhoun, but you apparently felt it necessary to mention that particular quote (twice) as if Calhoun was leading the Southern charge toward war based on the apparently flawed notion (your view, not mine) that slavery was a cover for war between the two sides. I merely refer to him because the 1862 article you quote mentions him, and I think it's disingenuous to blame Calhoun when he didn't live to see the debates over slavery in the decade following the Compromise of 1850. The 1862 North American Review article doesn't hold much weight, and your reliance on it (again, twice) makes it less reliable.

I wasn't responding to all your quotes. I used the same tactic as you earlier: I found quotes that I rely on when determining what caused the war. It's unlikely that I would find many quotes from individuals denying economic motivations (or any other apparent motivations for that matter) when they knew that slavery was at its root. Your statements had to defend against the argument that slavery produced war; mine don't have to argue against any other factor, because they realized slavery's significance. Who's trying to convince whom?

My sources are intentionally from the South. I could include many, MANY more sources from Northerners explaining that the war was based on slavery (I might mention James McPherson’s “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War” and Chandra Manning’s “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War” for soldiers’ sentiments both North and South), but the original article above refers to the difficulty many Southerners have with the notion that slavery might just be the primary factor after all. I thought I would let Southerners during the war speak for themselves on the importance of slavery.

jprich 3 years, 9 months ago

Furthermore, my sources cover the years from 1861-1865, and are not limited to the early stages of the war like yours. (Why you included a quote from Calhoun in your earlier post, especially before war even looked like a possibility when he made that statement, is beyond explanation if talking about what caused the Civil War. What year did he even say that?) My quotes cover impressions throughout the war, from the beginning to the end. They describe the rub between the two sides at its outset, and continue to reflect on it as the war progressed. Admittedly, many of my sources come toward the end of the war when Confederate leaders (such as someone you mentioned earlier, Pat Cleburne) suggested emancipating and arming slaves when the war looked bleak for the South, and that’s when Southerners all across the region understood the hypocrisy: What are we fighting for if we free our slaves? (Bruce Levine’s “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War” fleshes this theme out nicely, if you’re interested.)

Finally, the tariff issue wasn't nearly as important to most Americans in the 1850s as was the issue over slavery. There had been squabbles over the tariff since the founding of the nation, but no wars between the two sides ever broke out as a result. Tariffs had divided political parties, like the Whigs versus the Democrats in the 1830s and 1840s, not sections. It wasn't until the arguments over slavery, and, in particular, its extension into the Western territories in the middle part of the nineteenth century, did the nation truly divide along sectional lines. Lincoln didn’t reenter the political arena in the 1850s based on tariff issues; instead, he abhorred the idea that popular sovereignty, as defined in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, might allow slaveholders to bring their slaves into a territory (Kansas) that had originally prohibited slavery’s entrance due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820. (It’s also worth noting that the Democrat Party split along sectional lines based on this 1854 act, hence their small margin of victory in the 1856 election, and the fact they split before the 1860 election which Lincoln won, but I digress...) If anything, the tariff was (and, unfortunately, still is) a cover for slavery as the primary reason for war, not the other way around.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

You listed a bunch of quotes supporting your position, and jprich did the same.

I'm no historian, but it seems to me that you both have found sources supporting your view.

From my perspective, it is much more likely that the idea of tariffs was used as a cover for slavery than the other way around, especially as more and more disapproval of slavery became apparent.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

As I said, I'm no historian, and would never claim to be one.

From where I sit, it's hard enough for people to agree on what's happening right now, never mind hundreds of years ago.

So, it's not surprising at all to me that both you and jp can find quotes supporting your view of the past.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 9 months ago

Even if one wants to make the argument that the primary causes of the Civil War were economic, the economic (and political) structure of the South was based almost entirely on the institution of slavery. Its political leadership was made up almost entirely of slaveowners or those who were otherwise wholly dependent on the products generated by slavery.

It's very curious that some feel the intellectual need (if indeed there is anything remotely intellectual about it) to surgically separate the Siamese twins that were the South and its institution of slavery.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

Actually, the better analogy would be somebody claiming the war was about the Northern economy, but had nothing to do with railroads, even though they were a massive part of that economy.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

Then you're not expressing yourself very clearly.

Your comments seem to indicate exactly that, that you think slavery had nothing to do with causing the war, and that the real causes were tariffs, and preserving the union.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

Where do you say that it was an issue?

"Slavery is not the cause of the rebellion"

All of your initial quotes were statements that the cause of the Civil War was other than slavery.

And, you argue vehemently with anybody who claims it was the cause of the war.

I don't recall seeing even a mention of slavery as a secondary cause in your comments.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

Calm down, please.

I was actually trying to help you avoid misunderstandings.

But, if you want to present your ideas in a way that will lead people to misunderstand them, go right ahead.

If you're trying to look at the "whole picture" and slavery is a part of that picture, why wouldn't you include that in your comments?

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

I'm not criticizing you - I was trying to help you.

But, I'll stop now.

ferrislives 3 years, 9 months ago

LO says: "That's the 21st century perspective, though. Remember, the northerners weren't opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories because they were morally against slavery. It was because they wanted the territories to be for whites only. "

How can you or anyone just lump all Northerners one side, and all Southerners on another side? Any war is complex LO, you know that. So for you to argue that you positively know what the motivation for the civil war was, while sitting on your computer here in the year 2011, makes no logical sense.

Yes, we can look at writings from all sides to argue our own point, but for anyone here to use one side's writings to only embolden their own claims makes them look foolish.

You cannot discount the role that slavery played in the civil war, just as others cannot deny that there were other factors involved as well. But for you or anyone to attempt to lessen its importance in the civil war is simply sad.

MyName 3 years, 9 months ago

What's "interesting" is how you seem to be the only one making the argument of economics being the main issue. If the South had decided to give up slavery would we have gone to war? The answer is no. Furthermore, how can you claim that "economic issues" were the main cause when in fact slavery was what the southern economy was based on. You can't disentangle the two.

The question of slavery was the only disagreement that was sufficient to start a war by itself. That is why attempts to bring other issues into it are misguided at best if not making you out to be an apologist for an a disgusting institution at the worst.

ferrislives 3 years, 9 months ago

First, I was speaking to the quote I referenced. In this post, and other posts on the LJWorld, you constantly try to downplay the role that slavery played in the American civil war. Revisionist history is just that; revision. It's not reality. You are picking and choosing which people in history you believe, which is not giving you a well-rounded view of that terrible war.

Second, MyName pretty much summed it up; slavery and the economy were intertwined, and you cannot disconnect the two. Without slavery (aka free labor), the Southern economy would have been a very different thing. How can you or anyone argue against that?

ferrislives 3 years, 9 months ago

LO, where did I ever say or imply that slavery was the "sole cause of the war"? You my friend are putting words into my mouth. If you had thoroughly read through my comments, you'd see that I repeatedly referred to not only you, but others using quotes to back up their own point of view. I made a comment on a thread that had already been created by you and others. Just because you have chosen to assume that this was solely directed at you is not my problem.

Although there were several other factors involved with start and continuance of the civil war, slavery with its relation to the Southern economy was a large part of it. Everyone knows it, so please continue keeping your head in the sand. Please take your ego with it.

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